A Selected Survey2020
by Omayma El-Ella
To look at the state of the world this past year is to despair at the direction humankind seems to be going. Violence and oppression continue to plague many countries and peoples with ongoing Uyghur persecution in China, enduring Rohyinga displacement, India’s takeover of Kashmir, and terror attacks in Sri Lanka and New Zealand. Climate change has also heightened conflict in regions such as western and central Africa, where together with weak and corrupt governments and colonial-drawn borders, competition for resources continues to fuel instability. Worldwide we all seem to be increasingly cynical of the promises made in the aftermath of WWII, that interdependent relationships between states, free trade, and the subsequent triumph of human rights and civil liberties would propel humanity forward in an epoch of prosperity and harmony. Humanity has been propelled in many areas; in educational attainment, living standards and life expectancy, but too many people have also been left behind and forgotten, and inequality has grown.
Our current age is that of the populist strongman leader. There is no question that extremist ideology is on the rise, and it has been cultivated and nurtured by populist, ultra-nationalist, and authoritarian states who pendulate from courting to actively fighting it. The populists of today have co-opted the language of liberalism and anti-colonialism, and will often talk about unifying the people whilst creating divisions by speaking of the ideal citizen who is usually from the majority demographic; the real “American”, “Indian”, and “Hungarian”. In William Davies’ Nervous States: How Feeling Took Over the World he writes that “democracies are being transformed by the power of feeling” and “nostalgia, resentment, anger and fear” are taking over the world. Davies’ theory is that “physical pain, ageing, chronic illness and a deep sense of pointlessness” have all fed into the wave of nationalism that has taken over. People suffering in this manner may not make rational decisions, and even if they cannot stop the pain they want a reason for it. It’s an interesting theory that underlies a variety of consequences of being under mental stress and physical pain—fear, entitlement, lacking a sense of control, and questioning the meaning of it all. Scapegoating others for your pain is another common consequence, and Muslim minorities are being used as fodder to ease and manipulate the anxieties of demographics experiencing the effects of neo-liberal capitalism, austerity, and climate change. There is also the problematic nature of the nation state, which does not care for centuries-old ancestral and cultural relationships between places and people but is increasingly obsessed with maintaining a single demographic hegemony and a re-writing of history. Non-state actors are just as guilty of this, with the likes of DA’ISH, Al-Qaeda, and the groups they inspire responsible for killing and driving out centuries-old communities in the Middle East and Africa.
It hasn’t helped that new forms of digital communication and media in general have sensationalized and exaggerated or lied about the threat of certain groups. Twitter and Facebook both bear responsibility for allowing the spread of misinformation and hate speech in places like Myanmar, China and India. In Myanmar and Sri Lanka, much of the Buddhist violence against Muslims was sparked by fake stories spread on Facebook. A Sri Lankan presidential adviser told The Times after a Buddhist mob attacked Muslims over a false rumor: “the germs are ours, but Facebook is the wind”.
Strongman leaders also appear to be taking cues from one another, each become more audacious in their actions and testing how far they can go, whether it’s India reclaiming Kashmir, mass surveillance and detainment camps in Xinjiang, or President Trump telling Muslim elected officials to “go back home”. The breakdown in legitimacy of multilateral institutions like the UN and EU, as well as the retreat of leaders worldwide from the objectives of human rights and global cooperation, has emboldened a crop of leadership that fears little repercussion for its actions. Even sanctions that are meted out are counteracted with the support of other large superpowers, and superpowers are often the perpetrators of human rights violations themselves. Muslim states are in no moral position to be calling for protection of civilians in the “ummah” when they too enact many of the same oppressive tactics against their own people and other countries.
This overview sounds very depressing and despairing, and it is. However, there are tales of defiance and leadership with the likes of congresswomen Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib leading the progressive wing of the Democratic party in the USA and ushering in a new era of America Muslim political leadership. Muslim political and civic participation worldwide is also at its highest, and activists are fighting back and speaking truth to power on an array of issues in many countries; anti-corruption activists in Indonesia and Malaysia, Uyghur and Rohingya advocates against persecution, and religious leaders in Africa combatting interreligious violence. They embody that incredibly profound Hadith of the Prophet (peace be upon him), “Whosoever of you seen an evil, let him change it with his hand; and if he is not able to do so, then let him change it with his tongue; and if he is not able to do so, then with his heart—and this is the weakest of faith’. The profoundness of this saying lies in the fact that we as Muslims are reminded to never normalize evil by at the very least hating it in our hearts even if we are helpless to stop it, for that normalization is what allows evil to thrive and even appear as “good”. There is a silver lining in the fact that Muslims and their allies worldwide are not yet in despair and are continuing the fight for justice and humanity.
The following is an overview of some of the key events that have taken place in the Muslim world outside of the Arab region. This is not an exhaustive list by any means, and the content covers headline stories and less-known events developing in Africa and Asia that are affecting Muslims.
ONGOING CONFLICT AND INSTABILITY IN WEST AND CENTRAL AFRICA
Violence in western and central Africa remains a daily reality despite numerous peace agreements and military interventions. The Sahel region, which is made up of either Muslim majority countries or countries with significant Muslim populations, has become increasingly unstable in the past five years. The Central African Republic (CAR) is one country in this region where violence against Muslims hit headlines in 2013 when the Seleka, a group of mostly Muslim (but not Islamist) rebels, overthrew President Bozize and rampaged the city, looting and raping, sparking the creation of a counter-militia group known as the anti-Balaka, made up of mostly Christians and animists who in turn raped, killed, and burned the villages of thousands of Muslims.
The UN has called the CAR conflict a “forgotten crisis”, with more than a million people displaced, half of them in neighbouring countries. A silver lining has appeared with the signing of another peace agreement in February of this year in Khartoum between the CAR government and 14 militia groups (the 8th deal made so far). Despite this, acts of violence are still being committed by a range of armed groups, who have proven difficult to disband and absorb into the national regular forces. These groups continue to acquire weapons from the Sudanese Rapid Support Forces, made up of the notorious Janjaweed militia and traffickers in Chad. Currently, the UN Mission in Central Africa (MINUSCA) has recorded around 10-70 violations of the peace agreement each week, including rapes, murders, and kidnapping. Displaced Muslims who are taking refuge in churches, mosques, the bush, and neighbouring countries are reluctant to go back to their villages despite the UN and CAR government offering to pay around 42 euros for every individual who goes back. For most, that amount will not compensate for the complete destruction of their homes, businesses, and lack of security.
Another promising development, though also fraught with difficulties, is the operationalisation of the Special Criminal Court that was established in 2015. The court will try war crimes committed as far back as 2005. As with many other post-conflict justice initiatives, there is the peace vs justice dilemma, and in CAR’s case this is true with the Khartoum agreement stipulating the inclusion of armed factions in government who have committed atrocities. Also, as in other post-conflict contexts, victims and perpetrators live side-by-side, and without proper guarantees of security it can be difficult for victims to come forward.
Due to a lack of resources on numerous fronts—mostly psychosocial support and staff—there aren’t any protection and support programmes up and running, which make bringing cases to the court difficult. Nonetheless, the very step of acknowledging the need for justice for there to be peace is commendable. Political neglect and competition for resources are at the heart of these conflicts in CAR and in the region of the Sahel. Fifty million people in the Sahel survive on livestock rearing, and according to the UN, around 80% of the Sahel’s farmland is degraded, and food production is being further undermined by rising temperatures, causing droughts and floods that last longer and are more frequent. Both pastoralists and farmers are in a desperate search for fertile pasture, which is sparking violence.
In Nigeria’s Middle Belt, 1,300 Nigerians were killed in the beginning of 2017 and a further 300,000 displaced due to violence between farmers and herders according to International Crisis Group. Militant Islamist groups have taken advantage of these climate conditions and weak border controls and offer status and security to those who join. There are three main groups operating in the Sahel: the Macina Liberation Front in Central Mali, Ansaroul Islam in northern Burkina Faso, and the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara. Most often recruits have come from Fulani men, a pastoralist ethnic group that are mainly Muslim. The need for protection against cattle theft and overall security, status, and money are all reasons young men join.
Burkina Faso is another country that has been hit with a wave of violence recently. Since 2016 home-grown and nebulous militant groups situated in the northern Soum region of the country have expanded to south-western and eastern areas. Ansoural Islam is the main militant group that has a strong foothold in these parts. The roots of the conflict are not just a spill-over from neighbouring Mali, but like grievances that led to the Seleka rebels disposing of President Bozize in CAR, the lack of infrastructure, opportunity, and political and economic capital have all fed into the rise of Ansaroul Islam. Violence by both militants and the army have left thousands of people displaced and hundreds dead since January.
According to human rights organisations and eyewitness accounts, the response of the military has been heavy handed, and they are guilty of committing numerous abuses that include arbitrary detention and summary executions against the civilian population, especially the Fulani, who are seen to be in cohorts with the militants. All this instability is hitting children the most. Around 9,000 schools in eight countries have closed: Chad, Mali, the Central African Republic, Niger, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Cameroon, Burkina Faso, and Nigeria. The UN estimates that nearly 2 million children have been forced out of an education in west and central Africa due to direct attacks on schools and general violence. These children are vulnerable to child marriages, exploitation, and kidnapping. UNICEF have reported that nearly one in four children worldwide in need of education live in ten countries in west and central Africa. There has been a region-wide response that includes the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), INTERPOL, and organisations like the International Organisation of Migration as well as French security forces, working in tandem to strengthen cross-border management and security. This holistic approach is needed on a regional scale, but if the social conditions of corruption, lack of infrastructure, and distribution of wealth are not addressed, violence will continue to fester and grow.
CHINA: ONGOING UYGHUR PERSECUTION
On 8 July 2019, Twenty-two countries—amongst them Japan, Canada, New Zealand and Sweden—mounted the first collective criticism of China’s treatment of the Uyghurs in a statement to the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights. A substantial record of evidence gathered by numerous human rights organisations have shown an oppressive strategy designed to criminalise all forms of piety within Xinjiang targeting the Uyghur population. Police routinely conduct inspections known as fanghuij and look out for behaviour they deem to be extremist, such as praying, wearing hijab, and fasting during Ramadan. Xinjiang province is now a massive laboratory for Xi’s government to test out its mass-surveillance technology such as facial recognition technology and forcing Uyghurs to download malware that monitors their phones for any content deemed anti-government. But the visible manifestation of these policies has been in the hundreds of camps into which more than 1,000,000 Muslims have disappeared. Before this became international news, social media accounts set up by the relatives of those whose family members had gone missing started to draw attention to what was happening. There have been reports of beatings, forced feedings of pork and alcohol, sexual abuse, and even death in these camps.
Islam has a long history in China, and current estimates show that there are around 22 million Muslims in China, with around 10 million in Xinjiang province. The Uyghurs are not the only Muslims: the Hui are the largest Muslim group, but there are around nine others. Beijing and its allies have made the point that they are not directing these policies against Muslims or Islam as these other groups are not targeted. Even though there is evidence that this is not true, and there are Hui Muslims within the camps, there are notable contextual differences. Groups like the Hui are much more dispersed throughout the country and are not that ethnically distinct from the Han Chinese. Xinjiang, like Tibet, is a strategic border region with distinct ethnic groups who, to varying degrees, have called for separatism from the Chinese state. The very extremism China claims to be fighting in its detention of over 1 million Uyghur Muslims was encouraged by Beijing in the 80s when it actively armed, trained, and recruited Uyghurs for the Mujahedeen cause in Afghanistan. China had long opposed the Soviet invasion—seeing an expansionist policy that could become a threat to China itself—and heavily stockpiled the Mujahedeen.
This context is not to excuse the human rights violations against the Uyghurs, for even though there may very well be issues with separatist extremists (that the state bears some responsibility for), its policies have gone far beyond the pale in dealing with them, and almost all of those being targeted are ordinary practising Muslims. This is an attack and a message to all non-Han and non-atheistic groups that any difference that challenges Han and the state party’s supremacy will not be tolerated.
What has been jarring is the signatures of a letter at the UN Human Rights council defending Xi’s government policies in Xinjiang in response to the statement of the 22 countries. Around one third of the signatories are members of the Organization for Islamic Cooperation and include countries such as Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Egypt, and Pakistan. Though this is hardly surprising, as many of these countries envy China’s reach and ability to detain its citizens on such a scale and are involved in their own crackdowns against perceived dissidents, there is also another sobering realization in light of this support. Most of these countries are reliant on China for economic investment and ally-ship, pivoting away from the US whose fickle business dealings often come with ideological strings attached, unlike China. Turkey was the one Muslim country that had spoken out against China’s anti-Uyghur polices, but in the face of a recession and a collapsing currency it has been increasingly reliant on Chinese economic aid and partnerships, which has silenced its critique.
One promising move has been Qatar’s decision to remove its signature from the letter, with Ambassador Ali Al-Mansouri, Qatar’s permanent representative to the UN in Geneva, stating that “taking into account our focus on compromise and mediation, we believe that co-authorizing the aforementioned letter would compromise our foreign policy key priorities. In this regard, we wish to maintain a neutral stance and we offer our mediation and facilitation services.” It is not clear why Qatar had a change of heart. China was Qatar’s third-largest trading partner in 2018, but the Gulf state has been careful to cultivate a neutral stance on the world stage as that of a mediator, a role it has carried out between the Taliban and Afghan government.
China has declared that most of the detainees have been released, but human rights activists and Uyghur from the diaspora have contested this, saying there is no evidence of any mass releases, and that furthermore it has also been Chinese policy to force those that have been nominally freed into labour camps instead and keep them under surveillance. The rise of China and its influence on the world stage will continue to influence Muslim political leadership and its silence. It is highly unlikely that we will see moral leadership from any Muslim state on this matter. There are only so many fronts that China can fight on though, with pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong providing a beacon of hope and a crack in the authoritarian state’s armour.
INDIA, PAKISTAN, AND KASHMIR
The return of the BJP Party has been a rumbling, sobering reality for many Muslims, as recent events in Kashmir and Assam state have shown. The past five years under Modi’s rule have seen around 44 people lynched by Hindu supremacist cow vigilantes, changes to citizenship law to bar Muslims from living in the country, and campaigns to transform Muslim names of areas and places of worship to Hindu ones. The BJP is fuelled by a right-wing Hindu chauvinist ideology whose aim is to reshape India from a pluralist secular democracy into a Hindu Rashtra. It has endorsed the agenda of a collection of Hindu organisations known as the Sangh Parivar, linked to the right-wing paramilitary organisation Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. They believe that India has a religious duty to overcome centuries of humiliation at the hands of numerous foes who remain in the country in the form of Muslims, Christians, communists and secularists.
Modi has successfully captured the imagination of millions of Indians with his staunch anti-corruption campaign portraying him as a devout man of humble origins, which resonated powerfully with lower-caste voters who make up the majority of India’s electorate and voted overwhelmingly for the BJP. Muslims too form part of this disenfranchised mass, with a leading 2006 commission led by the Rajindar Sacha committee finding that most Muslims lacked adequate access to education and economic opportunity.
This structural inequality has only worsened under the BJP. Muslims make up the largest minority in India, yet there is not one single Muslim representative in parliament from the ruling party; the first time in India’s parliamentary democratic history. The BJP has also borrowed tactics from other populist and xenophobic parties, such as creating a supportive front from the very group their policies and rhetoric harm, like the Muslim Rashtirya Manch (MRM), which started in 2002 to articulate a Muslim rationale for Hindu nationalist objectives. Instead of focusing their advocacy on improving the economic and educational lot of Muslims, they went after issues such as triple talaq which the supreme court banned in 2017. Not that this was not a worthy problem to tackle, but it was a convenient high-profile issue that made the BJP appear like champions of Muslim women.
It stoked up stereotypes of Muslims, and there are also fears that it will blur the separation between personal laws and the state, eroding the constitutional secularism of the state. These kinds of targeted campaigns don’t tackle the structural problems that facilitate these issues, and often perpetuate harmful stereotypes of an already-disenfranchised community. Most chillingly, the MRM has supported an extremely controversial BJP bill that argues it is a Hindu right to seek citizenship in India and will only provide citizenship to Hindu immigrants. This strikingly echo’s Israel’s own citizenship laws, a state that the BJP has become increasingly close to.
Assam state is bearing the brunt of the objectives of this bill, which is to maintain a majority Hindu demographic. By August 31st, as many as 4 million people who have considered themselves Indians for decades could have their citizenship stripped away by the state. There is still no plan for where these stateless people will go, echoing another crisis to rival that of the Rohyingas. Assam as a north-eastern state has always had a diverse populace, with Muslim and Hindu Bengalis travelling through the porous border of Bangladesh. The BJP have made the National Register of Citizens (NRC) a campaign priority, requiring everyone in Assam state to prove that their ancestors lived in India prior to March 24th 1971, days before Bangladesh declared independence from Pakistan. When the BJP government put together its draft NRC, 4 million people were excluded and are now left to convince the government that they are Indian or risk deportation. In April, Amit Shah, the president of the BJP, was quoted as saying on their official twitter page: “we will ensure implementation of NRC in the entire country. We will remove every single infiltrator from the country, except [Buddhists, Hindus, and Sikhs]”. Where they will go and whether any of the neighbouring nations will accept them remains to be seen.
Events in Kashmir are just as sinister. On the 5th August the BJP abrogated Article 370 of the Indian constitution, which guaranteed an autonomous status to Jammu and Kashmir. They also revoked Article 35A which guaranteed protection for indigenous society from demographic transformation in the name of development, equality and national unity. The state now is open to settler colonialism like that of Israel. Kashmir has long played a role in the mythology of the Hindu state and is viewed as the next battleground against the Muslims by the Hindu far-right.
Indian public opinion has supported this, and activists proudly chant “Aab Hindu Rashtra banega” (“We will now build a Hindu nation”). Human Rights organisations have been reporting on violent beatings and torture against Kashmiri Muslims, and state-sanctioned power outages have left hospitals without any means to administer their work. Kashmiri Muslims who resist will face more state violence and be smeared as Islamist terrorists. Many look to Pakistan for support, with Prime Minister Imran Khan calling upon the security council to uses its powers to stop India. Pakistan finds itself in a tough bind: if it supports an armed insurrection it will isolate itself on the international stage and fuel the Islamist-terrorist punditry, and if it does nothing it will isolate Muslims in Pakistan and Kashmir. It is the only country actively advocating for Kashmir. China, Pakistan’s ally, has also strongly condemned India’s actions but to no effect.
Pakistan has not made it easier for itself. It’s silence on human rights abuses of Muslims by both of its allies China and Saudi Arabia and perceived protection of terrorist groups in the country have undermined its outrage at India’s takeover of Kashmir. The context of this silence becomes clear when looking at the dire economic situation Pakistan is in, and the payment crisis it has inherited which has crippled its economy. Prime Minister Imran Khan has been on an international tour to secure investments, and has managed to secure a much needed 20 billion dollars’ worth of deals from the Saudis. This comes with strings attached of course: Pakistan’s support and direct involvement in the Islamic Counter-Terrorism Military coalition (IMTC) which is now headed by a former Pakistani army chief general.
The aims of this “Arab NATO” are to fight the likes of DA’ISH, but their other agenda is to counter Iranian influence in the region. Pakistan plays a key strategic role here for the Saudis, as it neighbours Iran. This is tricky terrain for Imran’s party, as the country is home to the second-largest Shia population in the world who overall have supported his party, but may reassess their support considering the country’s clientele relationship with the Saudis. Iran, like India, is also making the case that Pakistan is a safe haven for terrorists and deliberately careless on its border security, allowing terrorist groups like Jaish al Adl to commit attacks on Iran’s revolutionary guards and Indian troops in Kashmir. The clientele relationship with the Saudis is fickle as Saudi Arabia is keen to maintain good relations with India, unlike China which views India as a rival.
Despite securing loans from several countries, including Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and China, it still was not enough to stop Imran Khan from accepting an IMF bailout agreement to the sum of 6 billion dollars in July of this year; an entity he promised he would never take money from during his election campaign. His popularity amongst Pakistanis, particularly the middle classes, has waned because of his decision to increase taxes as part of the conditions of July’s IMF bailout, and this is the 13th bailout package that Pakistan has received since the 80s. Furthermore, the Financial Action Task Force (FATF), an inter-governmental anti-money laundering agency, has found Pakistan non-compliant in relation to money laundering and terror financing on 32 out of 40 compliance parameters. It is now at risk of being blacklisted by the FATF if it does not address these issues and be found compliant by October. The listing by the FATF is significant, as any downgrade makes it harder to borrow money from the likes of the IMF, World Bank, Asian Development bank, and investors. It remains to be seen if Imran’s overseas charm offensive and governance style will yield any visible benefits to the country in the long term.
SRI LANKA: TERRORIST ATTACKS DEEPEN RELIGIOUS AND ETHNIC FAULT LINES
Sri Lanka suffered its worst terror attacks this year since 1996, when the civil war was still ongoing with the Liberation of Tamil Tigers of Eleam (LTTE). On the Christian holy day of Easter Sunday, 21st April 2019, three churches were targeted in suicide bombings, as well as explosions at a further four hotels and two buildings. Two-hundred and fifty-nine people died, and a further 500 were injured. The fact that these attacks were perpetrated by Sri Lankan extremist Muslims left the Muslim community reeling and dealing with the inevitable backlash. The government passed a law banning the wearing of the niqab, and mobs attacked Muslim properties, mosques, and people. Reports differ on the number of properties and individuals harmed in these riots, with some accounts saying 9 civilians were killed in the Minuwangdoa and Kurunegala districts and 540 Muslim-owned properties were destroyed overall. This violence echoes the anti-Muslim riots of 2018, where similar mob attacks by extremist Buddhists were fueled by anti-Muslim fake news on social media.
The backlash became so bad that nine Muslim cabinet ministers resigned from their positions, arguing that this was a good-faith decision to allow for transparent and unhindered investigations into alleged terrorist links to politicians and to curb the violence. Further attempts by the government to control the proliferation of coordinated mob attacks were actioned in the form of a new law banning all propagation of hate speech and fake news, with anyone found guilty of committing the crime liable to imprisonment for up to five years. Though this measure was a promising start, it was too little too late. Ever since the end of the civil war, efforts to establish harmonious relations between the Island’s numerous ethnic and religious groups have been minimal. According to Amjad Saleem, a Sri Lankan political analyst, the state in its post-conflict context has failed to create an inclusive national identity or prioritise tackling the lack of trust and animosity between different groups in the country and strengthen community relations. Much of that burden has fallen on grassroots organisations and activists who lack the resources of the state. It hasn’t helped that the previous government enabled an environment of impunity for perpetrators of violence and refused any serious devolution of power to other parts of Sri Lanka from the Sinhala majority in the South.
The current coalition government in Sri Lanka was voted in with strong support from minority groups in 2015, but faith in them has considerably weakened due to their failure to protect them from violence. Fissures between Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and President Maithripala Sirisena apparently led to a breakdown in communication with the intelligence services, which has demonstrated the shocking lack of cohesiveness between these vital state functions. Earlier in April, it was reported that a high-ranking police official warned the government of a potential terrorist attack by the National Thowheeth Jammath (NTJ), the terrorist group that carried out the attacks, and members of the Muslim community had continuously warned the intelligence services of their fears of the group. NTJ has its roots in a wider Islamic movement during the 90s called Tawheed that proliferated into smaller groups, some of which took up more hardline Wahhabi-inspired ideologies. This wider movement echoed trends happening elsewhere in the Muslim world, where the rise of faster communications and petrodollar Saudi-funded Islamic education facilitated an age of renewed Islamic thought globally. Important discussions were being had on what it meant to be Muslim in Sri Lanka, as Muslim identity was caught between Tamil and Sinhalese ideas of racial purity, and Muslims were being viewed as invaders who threatened the supremacy of both demographics.
Even though it is still unclear what the genesis of these attacks were, the links to transnational Islamist terrorist groups has been established with DA’ISH claiming involvement. The attacks have puzzled much of the counter-terrorism community, as Muslims in Sri Lanka have been relatively peaceful even in the face of violence inflicted upon them at numerous stages, and the fact that the attackers came from middle and upper-class families. It may be reasonable to assume that with the intensification of identity politics and ethnic violence, and the active courtship of a determined extremist Islamist global network taking advantage of these bewildering realities and grievances, that all these elements worked in tandem to lead to such a horrific attack.
Elections are looming on the horizon, and there are fears amongst Muslims of a comeback of the Rajapasaka family. Mahinda Rajapasaka, the former wartime president, is credited with ending the civil war but was also accused of alleged war crimes in the process. He can’t legally run because of constitutional term limits, but his hawkish brother Gotabhaya has been put forth as a presidential candidate: he was the former minister of defence and also accused of war crimes. The clout of the family is high amongst the majority Sinhala community, and many in the Christian community who want a strongman leader in the wake of these attacks. If the clan manages to get back in power again, is likely that we will see more ultra-nationalist rhetoric and indiscriminate clampdowns, as well as no concrete plans to support community cohesion and reconciliation.
THE ROHINGYA: A PLAN FOR RETURN?
It’s been two years since more than 1 million Rohingya fled Rahkine state in Myanmar to neighboring Bangladesh, and a total of 1.5 million live in exile in Australia, Saudi Arabia, Thailand, the UAE, Malaysia, India, the UK, US, and Pakistan combined. Like India’s citizenship culling in Assam state, Myanmar has enacted recent laws that require the Rohingya to provide evidence that their ancestors settled in Myanmar before the 19th century. Unlike the Uyghurs, the Rohingya’s persecution by the state has led to a mass exodus and large-scale refugee crisis. The UN concluded that the military crackdown and forcible displacement in August 2017 had “genocidal intent”. Horrific stories of mass rape, burnings, villages razed to the ground and shootings have left lasting trauma. This is why despite a recent agreement between Bangladesh and Myanmar to repatriate a number of Rohingya, there is still a very deep fear of going back.
The number is also pitifully low: only 3,450 refugees have been cleared from a list of 22,000 names. This seems to be a deliberate strategy by Myanmar to perhaps gain some lost credibility on the world stage whilst allowing only a tiny number back who will pose no perceived demographic or political threat.
Furthermore, repatriation has been protested by many from within the refugee camps, who also say they have not been consulted on these recent plans. The UN sees this small step as a necessary and welcome acknowledgement on behalf of the Myanmar state of the right of return: a principle that few states have ever endeavored to enact for those they have pushed out, much to the continuing frustration of the UN who still uphold it as a right. Both Bangladesh and the UNHCR have stressed that return is voluntary, and no one will be forced to go back. This however, is the second attempt at repatriation. In November of 2018 attempts were made but protested heavily by the refugees, and none of the 2000 refugees approved agreed to go back voluntarily. Most now live in squalid camp conditions in Cox’s Bazar, yet despite these conditions, many view this as a better alternative than returning to Myanmar. There is evidence to support the fact that the government has no real intention of safeguarding the rights of returnees, with security forces burning and destroying Rohingya villages up until this year. There are no homes left for the Rohyinga to return to and the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) concluded in a recent report that there was no evidence of “…widespread preparation for Rohingya refugees to return to safe and dignified conditions”.
The Rohingya are also being viewed as unwanted guests. Bangladesh’s foreign minister Abdul Momen said that Bangladesh was unable to keep bearing the economic burden of hosting the refugees, and promising a “tougher stance” on the matter with the Myanmar authorities whom Bangladesh say lack the “will” to seriously repatriate their own citizens. Considering the evidence, this latter sentiment seems to hold true. The international community has been inept in holding Myanmar to account, and unless there is a justice commission, with accountability for the crimes that have happened and fair recompense and security, there is little hope that any Rohingya will ever want to go back or expect justice if they do.
INDONESIA AND MALAYSIA: DEMOCRACY-STRONG, STRUGGLING WITH CORRUPTION
Elections in the Malay Archipelago in 2018 reminded us that there are still Muslim-majority nations where civic participation is going strong. There are feminist groups, trade unions, environmental organisations, and anti-corruption agencies in both countries that are promising signs of an outspoken civil society.
After decades of widespread government corruption, the election campaigns of both Malaysia and Indonesia ran on anti-corruption pledges to end the practise and ensure accountability. The Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission was finally able to do its work after years of obstruction, and the country made headlines after it came out that former Prime Minister Najib Razak was accused of embezzling around 540 million dollars from the sovereign fund, 1 Malaysia Development Berhard (1MDB).
This state trust was set up in 2009 to help promote development and investment in Malaysia, and it raised money through bond sales and joint ventures. Much of that money was laundered and embezzled. According to the US Justice Department indictment, a number of 1MDB officials led by notorious businessman Low Taek Jhow —who was involved in the creation of 1MDB and acted as a consultant —diverted funds into personal accounts that were made to look like legitimate businesses and paid off some of that money to officials in kickbacks. This has been one of the largest financial scandals of the century, involving a convoluted web of wealthy individuals, and the stolen money ending up in real estate, Van Gogh and Picasso paintings, the Wolf of Wall Street film starring Leonardo DiCaprio, and 30 million dollars worth of jewellery for Razak’s wife.
This global kleptocracy scandal saw to the ousting of Najib Razak in the 2018 elections and, for the first time since independence, saw the election of the opposition party led by Mahathir. Razak has been charged with 42 counts of corruption, money laundering, and breach of trust. The long-awaited court hearings for the former Prime Minister began on the 28th August and is one of five corruption trials linked to a multi-billion dollar corruption scandal that has also implicated financiers worldwide like Goldman Sachs. Coordinated investigations are taking place across Asia, Europe and the US. Switzerland and Singapore have already fined some banks for weak anti-money laundering controls, and in the US, the former Southeast Asia chairman of Goldman Sachs, Tim Leissner, admitted to bribing Malay and UAE officials to acquire bond deals for Goldman Sachs and pled guilty to conspiracy to launder money. He agreed to forfeit $43.7 million ahead of his sentencing. Malaysia has also filed criminal charges against 17 current and former employees and associates of Goldman Sachs.
There is strong public support for Mahathir taking Razak to court and cracking down on corruption in Malaysia. Mahathir has his own chequered past as prime minister for two decades, censoring journalists and dismissing human rights as universal, but his momentum in dealing with his campaign pledge to tackle corruption has rekindled his popularity in Malaysia. He has not lived up to all of his election pledges, and polls show that people are still unhappy with the state of the economy, high inflation, and ethnic discrimination under his rule, yet many are hopeful that this precedent will usher in a new age of accountability in Malaysia. Worldwide, the findings of this case will be significant as they will hopefully help close loopholes in the global financial system that facilitate corruption of this level.
Comparisons have inevitably been made with Indonesia’s handling of corruption, where the public mood towards President Widodo on this matter is sourer. Indonesia has an independent anti-corruption agency called the Corruption Eradication Commission (KPK), whose anti-corruption work has been hailed as one of the best in the world, but their members have had to suffer numerous physical attacks over the years. A horrific acid attack on corruption investigator Novel Basweden, which left him half blind, has been brought to the attention of the United Nations Human Rights Council by Amnesty International in February of this year. The strategy is to take the case internationally to put pressure on the Indonesian government to prioritise solving the case and ensuring justice. Widodo’s government has been criticised for not taking the investigation and others like it seriously enough, and it is widely believed that the reason for this is because corrupt senior police and government officials are involved in these kinds of attacks.
Widodo made no specific election pledges to stop corruption, yet he is under pressure to ensure that the Commission can do its work unhindered. There are further doubts cast upon him as he was responsible for choosing the individuals for the selection committee for the upcoming KPK leadership bid who seem to have questionable ethics. One of these is inspector General Dharama Pongrekun, who had this to say to critics questioning why certain applicants had yet to submit their wealth reports: “The wealth report is not relevant to God’s law. Why? Because the concept is atheistic in its nature. The KPK created [this concept] in the first place. Rezeki [sustenance] should not be regulated by the law”.
The 1999 Good Governance and Freedom from Corruption Collusion and Nepotism Law and KPK law (passed in 2002) obligate state officials to submit their wealth reports to ensure transparency. For an individual to lead an anti-corruption agency, that would seem even more pertinent, as integrity and independence are integral for the role. To attempt to use an Islamic argument against this seems audacious. Moreover, graft watchdogs have also called out several problematic candidates for the position, including one police chief who allegedly intimidated a KPK official into providing a favourable testimony, and another candidate who is also a police chief was accused of committing an ethics breach. Widodo may not be convincing on corruption, but he has been busy with his election promises of reducing inequality and investing in Indonesia’s infrastructure and development. His decision to move the capital from Jakarta to East Kalimantan on the Island of Borneo is significant.
Despite most headlines implying that the key reason for the move is that Jakarta is fast-sinking, heavily polluted and gridlocked (it is), this move is equally about fundamentally transforming the balance of power and redistributing it. Right now, Jakarta is both the seat of government and business, and wealth is predominately concentrated on the island of Java. The new capital will be the seat of government while the seat of trade and commerce will remain in Jakarta. It is hoped that that this move will “spread the wealth” across the other islands where feelings of discontentment and being left behind have been running high. Tackling the causes of these sentiments will be important: violence erupted in West Papua in August where indigenous Papuans have long spoken out against racism and have been calling for self-determination, and more Indonesian Muslims are becoming attracted to puritan forms of Islam that are intolerant of difference and see corruption as a natural consequence of a secular society. Ensuring a fair and inclusive distribution of investment, equal opportunity, zero tolerance for corruption, and safeguarding the very precious biodiversity of all the islands will be the real test of Widodo’s commitment for a fairer Indonesia.
ISLAMOPHOBIA IN OCEANIA
The right-wing media complex is very much at home in Australia, birth place of Rupert Murdoch, the conservative mogul who owns a variety of media groups including Fox News and newspapers in Australia that produced an incredible 2,891 negative stories about Muslims and Islam in one year alone. The Australian government has been particularly adept at mainstreaming contempt and fear of Muslims. Prime Minister Morrison was quick to condemn the terrorist attacks by Brenton Tarrant, a 28-year-old Australian who killed 51 Muslims and injured another 49 at a mosque and Islamic centre in Christchurch, New Zealand on the 15th March 2019. This was one of the deadliest attacks to ever occur in New Zealand, yet it had its roots in the Australian Islamophobia media-complex that has fostered thousands like Tarrant. Most western right-wing governments are quick to distance themselves from the violent actions of the far right, yet their complicity is apparent with their consistent messages of Muslims as “invaders who don’t integrate” which fit effortlessly with the mythology of white supremacy and the fear of a dwindling demographic and “outsider” takeover. Prime Minister Morrison himself back in 2011 urged the government to address concerns over Muslim immigration when he was in opposition.
Nevertheless, one does not need to look back at the now Prime Minister’s remarks to see that Australia has a long and ugly history of racism. From 1901-1966 it enforced a “White Australia Policy”, which banned people of non-European origin from immigrating to Australia, and which was particularly aimed at Asians.
Fears of Muslim refugees and asylum seekers in the 90s and 2000s preceded a re-election campaign based on an anti-immigration platform by the Howard government who governed Australia from 1997-2007. Current political realties echo these xenophobic fears. Fraser Anning, a former independent senator, said of the Christchurch attack that “the real cause of bloodshed on New Zealand streets today is the immigration program that allowed Muslim fanatics to migrate to New Zealand in the first place”.
Senator Pauline Hanson from the One Nation party said that Islam was a “disease” that needed to be vaccinated against. Even though Muslims make up only 2 percent of the population in Australia, 49% support a permanent ban on Muslim immigration. The proliferation of social media has only strengthened white supremacist networks. The “Muslim tide” conspiracy, which has it that Muslims will overrun majority white countries, is largely disseminated by Australian far-right groups such as the United Patriots Front, Reclaim Australia, and the Australian Defence League, and was referenced by the Christchurch terrorist in his manifesto.
It is unfortunate that these anti-Muslim sentiments have cast their shadow on New Zealand, where similar research has shown that even though Kiwis are more tolerant and accepting of diversity, they still fear Muslims. A survey of 300 people showed that 44% believed that “Muslim values were not compatible with New Zealand values” and 51% agreed that “Muslim immigrants increase the risk of terrorism”. The research also showed an undeniable link between these sentiments and the media: only 10 percent of media articles on Muslims in New Zealand were domestic stories. Dr John Shaver from Otago University conducted a 2017 study that showed “…negative attitudes towards Muslims are, in part, the result of frequent exposure to biased and inaccurate representations of Muslims in media”.
This discourse has become so normalized that it comes as little surprise that such an attack has happened. Perhaps the only thing that showed that there was some hope in the wake of such a heartless killing was the humanity and leadership Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern displayed and the solidarity and compassion demonstrated by the people of New Zealand: Maori hakas were preformed, a royal commission of inquiry set up to investigate the role of the security agencies in the wake of the attacks, and a ban on most semi-automatic weapons. The bill introduced to ban military-style weapons was passed almost unanimously, 119-1. The decisiveness and conviction demonstrated by Prime Minister Ardern has been a welcome respite from the crude populism by so many world leaders of today. Importantly, it has shown that a wise and compassionate politics that doesn’t pander to the lowest-denominator of human fears and anxiety is possible.
Omayma El-Ella is a North African Swedish-born freelance consultant specialising in conflict transformation, charity governance, and leadership development. She has a BA in War Studies from Kings College London, and an MA from SOAS in Near and Middle Eastern Studies. She has over 8 years’ advocacy, policy, organisational development, and research experience in relation to international humanitarian aid and development, conflict transformation, and civil society space. Her work has taken her to the post-conflict environments of Sri Lanka, Libya, Bosnia & Herzegovina and the Central African Republic. She currently resides in Alexandria, Virginia.